I saw them first but they saw me, too.
They were orange and wore masks with tubes that twisted out of their mouths and noses. I couldn’t tell what they were but I was sure they were aliens, just like the ones my older brother Matt would tell me were hiding in my bedroom closet and under my bed.
“As soon as you fall asleep,” he’d say, “they’ll jump out and get you.
Aliens love little girls!”
I ran to him since he was an expert on these kinds of things. He was on our back porch playing cards with Grandma and Mom, Buster the beagle at his feet, while he joked about how bad they were getting thrashed by a ten-year-old. Not just any ten-year-old, though, a genius ten-year-old.
At least that’s what Matt always told me.
I reached his side just as he was throwing up his arms in a triumphant gesture.
Grandma threw down her cards.
Mom high-fived him. “Another win. I can’t believe it.” She smiled when she saw me. “Where have you been, Steph?”
She winked. “I think it’s about time for some of Grandma’s birthday cake. What do you say?”
“Sweet!” Matt replied.
I nodded. As soon as Grandma and Mom went inside to light the candles, I pulled on Matt’s arm. “Come here.”
“There’s something out front. Come look.”
“Wait. I want some cake first.”
I pulled on his arm again. “Now.”
“Geesh, Steph. You can wait at least five minutes.”
I had to hold back the tears as we sang Happy Birthday. My mouth was dry, my throat stuffed with cotton. What if the aliens came to get me while we were dilly-dallying with birthday songs and celebrations?
Grandma closed her eyes to make a wish; she took a deep breath, and blew out the candles.
“What did you wish for, Grandma?” Matt asked.
“If I tell you, then it won’t come true.”
“Come on. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
She sighed. “Alright. I wished for another happy and cancer-free year. I’m already pushing it, you know. There hasn’t been another person to live to sixty in at least ten years.” Her eyes shifted. “I’m the oldest person in the world.”
They ate cake silently. I didn’t want any. My stomach was all cartwheels and somersaults.
As soon as Matt swallowed his last bite, and with chocolate icing smeared on his lips, I grabbed his arm. “Come on!”
This time he followed me. Our ten acres in rural Ohio were spotted with fruit and maple trees. Mom had a garden where she planted beans, onions, tomatoes, and flowers, but the rest of our yard was a field that Matt had to mow every week because the grass grew quick and thick and tickled our legs when it was high.
“What’s so important?”
I pointed to the tree that an alien had been hiding behind. “It’s there.”
His neck strained. He squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
“It was right there. It’s probably hiding somewhere else now.” My voice softened to a whisper. “I think it saw me.”
He put an arm around my shoulders. “Don’t worry, Steph, we’ll find it. I won’t let it hurt you.”
There was a large stick in the bushes lining the house. He pulled it out and held it in front of him like a sword. “Aliens hate sticks,” he said.
I shadowed him, my sweaty hands gripping the back of his shirt, as we darted from one tree to another until we were eyeing the alien’s hideout from an arm’s length away. My heart was racing.
We crept closer.
The screams were raw and piercing. Matt took off towards the shouting at the back of the house but my strides were no match for his longer ones. When I got there the orange aliens had invaded the porch. Two of them were holding Mom down while three others were dragging Grandma away. Buster was running in circles, nipping at their heels. Spittle rocketed from his mouth when he barked and lunged at one of them. The alien kicked him away.
Matt raced towards them and jabbed at an alien with his stick before sidestepping and jabbing at another.
Two syringes were pulled out. Both Mom and Grandma were injected.
I hid behind a tree, hot tears spilling from my eyes.
Grandma was taken. Mom lay on the ground, unmoving. They left Matt and I.
The stick didn’t keep the aliens at bay.
Matt found me sometime later. It felt like it’d been hours but he said it’d only been minutes. I was curled in a fetal position, my hands over my ears, my eyes shut tight.
“They’re gone,” he said. “It’s okay now. I have to call the police.”
I hugged Buster who was sitting up, alert. Matt dialed from his cell phone and relayed our address. “An ambulance, too,” he said. “Mom’s not moving.”
He appeared to listen. “No, she’s breathing. But they injected her with something.”
After the call ended, he stood ready, eyes alert, his stick raised high.
I learned two things that day: One, you should always keep your birthday wishes to yourself. And two, aliens might wait and watch in the dark shades of night but they bite during the clear light of day.
“Where do you think they took her?”
Matt cocked his head, closed his eyes. “Probably outer space.” His eyes popped open. “Teralf,” he said. “Definitely Teralf.”
We were sitting on the porch where Grandma had been taken and Mom had been injected. Buster lay between us, his aging body tired from playing. The weather was warm and a soft breeze ruffled the leaves of the newly budding trees.
It was two days after the attack. The police and EMTs had come and gone. Mom looked okay, physically anyway. Grandma was missing. The police didn’t believe us about the aliens. They said Grandma had left of her own free will.
I petted Buster’s head and he turned it so that I could reach him better.
Matt explained that it was a newly discovered exoplanet that hadn’t yet been fully explored but intelligence suggested was a planet that could support life. The aliens, he said, were probably natives of Teralf and mad as hell that we’d discovered their home.
I knew that humans had colonized at least five other planets a few years before I was born. As far as I knew, none of them had any living life forms.
“But why would the aliens take Grandma?” I asked Matt.
“They probably want to study her so they can learn how to fight humans. Grandma would be the best specimen. I mean, she’s never had cancer and everyone gets cancer. If they can figure that out, then they’ll know how to beat us.”
I snuggled closer to Buster. He snuggled back.
“Do you think she’s okay?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” He shrugged his shoulders. His hair was sticking out in places. Bags were under his eyes. He’d been staying up late on what he called “guard duty.”
I couldn’t sleep either but it was because of the nightmares. Orange aliens with beady, black eyes and enormous hands waited there in my sleep. Sometimes I saw Grandma in them but it scared me most of all because she’d started turning orange, too.
Matt found the mass the next day. It was brown and black, and grew quickly. Within two hours, it had spread up Buster’s back to his neck.
I cried the entire way to the vet.
Buster knew something was wrong because he kept looking at me with those large, watery eyes and whimpering. Matt held him in his lap and whispered words of comfort in his ear.
Standing in the office, the vet explained that it was too late; the cancer had spread too much, too far.
“But how?” Matt asked. “The mass wasn’t there yesterday.”
“I’m not quite sure.” The vet shook her head. “Some experts think that animals are now developing the Super Cancer just like humans.”
“But cancer isn’t contagious, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Then why is the cancer spreading?”
“It’s not spreading. It’s just… I don’t know what it’s doing.”
I could feel Buster’s heart beating under my hand. It was drumming too fast. I hated that he was scared. My throat tightened when the vet said that the nice thing to do would be to euthanize him. I knew what euthanize meant. It meant that Buster wouldn’t be sleeping at the end of Matt’s bed anymore and that I wouldn’t feel his slippery tongue on my face every morning.
Matt insisted on staying in the room but I waited outside the door. When it was over, the vet gave us lollipops. Mine was Root Beer, my favorite flavor. I threw it in the trash on the way out.
We buried Buster in his favorite place next to the garden.
As the evening dragged the sun low, the sky faded yellow to gray to black. I thought of Grandma then, and Buster, who were probably in heaven now.
My stomach tensed at the thought that Mom or Matt could develop cancer. Then I would be alone and there would be no one to protect me from the orange aliens that I knew watched me every night.
When Matt asked me why my eyes were wet and red, I blamed it on my allergies.
Matt was the next to go.
It was a Friday in October and I wasn’t feeling well. I remember because we’d had a test in school about the differences between cancerous and benign melanoma. There were pictures of moles and masses of different colors and sizes, and we had to match them with the appropriate terms.
Some of the images were of people, and dogs and cats, even fish, but most of the pictures were of plants because the trees and crops had recently begun to develop the Super Cancer, too.
Looking at the pictures had made my heart race and my stomach roil. I’d excused myself to the restroom and was relieved that no one else was in there to hear me retching into the toilet.
I knew that I was going to fail the test.
There was a car in the driveway when I got off the bus. It was black and the windows were tinted. A tall man with dark hair and a grim face opened the door.
“Stephanie Collins,” he said.
I felt my eyes open big. How did this guy know my name and what was he doing in the house? I stood on the threshold, not sure if I should enter.
Matt stuck his head out the door. “What are you doing just standing there? Mom made cookies. If you want any you’d better come inside.”
The thought of cookies didn’t make me move any faster.
“Come on!” Matt rolled his eyes.
I shuffled forward. Three men in suits were in the living room. Two of them were eating cookies on the couch and another was standing just past the door.
“Hello, Stephanie,” they said in unison.
I took a small step back.
The door slammed shut. I spun around to see a man standing behind me. He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Mr. Bell. And these are my friends,” he gestured towards the two on the couch, “Mr. George and Mr. Roberts.”
I stared at them.
“Don’t be rude, Steph.” Matt gestured towards the man’s open hand.
I shook it and then drew my hand away. It felt slimy.
“Come here, Steph,” Mom said.
I hadn’t noticed her sitting in one of the high-backed chairs that flanked the couch. I sat on her lap. She was warm. I leaned back against her, rested my head on her chest.
“These men are here because Matt has performed well in school,” Mom said.
“They want him to go away to a special school.”
“What kind of special school?”
“A school for really smart kids. A science school.”
I didn’t say anything for a few minutes and then I asked, “Am I going to the school, too?”
I could see Mom hesitate. She shook her head. “Oh Steph, it’s only for certain kids. I don’t think you’d like it much.”
The men were talking then, about the school, and where Matt would be staying, but I wasn’t listening much. I was mad at Mom because she was letting these men take Matt away and I was mad at Matt for going. But I was also mad that I wasn’t going to the school, too.
I still wasn’t talking to anyone when it was time for Matt to leave. He was in the backseat of the car, one of the men backing it out of the driveway, when I screamed at him, my cheeks burning and hands clenched, that I hated him and never wanted to see him again, and how could he possibly leave us?
I found the stick later. It was lying on my bed. There was a note with it. “You’re in charge now,” it said. “Don’t let the aliens win.”
We had Super Cancer tests every month for the next four years. This time it was a big one; this time the testing was on our bodies.
First, we had to do pushups and sit-ups and pull-ups and then when we were all tuckered out from that, we had to do timed sprints on the track.
I wasn’t doing so well with the push-ups and stuff but I knew I would pass the running test. I’d always been good at running. All I had to do was pretend that the aliens were behind me and I’d beat everyone, even the boys, every time.
Afterwards, there was a lot of talk about the cancer in the locker room.
That’s how I learned about Impeder.
It smelled citrusy like real tangerines, not the artificial ones that we’d been eating for the past year. Those ones had a slightly antiseptic smell. Not this. This smelled good.
“Go ahead. Try it,” one of the more popular girls said. We were in the locker room changing our clothes after gym class.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Impeder. What do you think it is?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“It’s good for you,” she said. “Protects against the cancer.”
“It does?” I hadn’t heard about anything that could protect against the Super Cancer. Wouldn’t it be all over the news if it could do that? And wouldn’t Mom have gotten some for us?
“Of course it does.” She tossed her hair back and started slathering some on her arms.
“How does it do that?”
“Wow. You don’t know anything, do you?”
Another girl added her two cents. “You’d think some of those brains her brother has would’ve rubbed off on her.”
“Guess not.” A third girl said. She giggled.
“So, you want to try it?” the girl with the Impeder said.
I turned away. “No thanks.” Some of the other girls eyed me sympathetically as I walked to my locker in the corner of the room but I ignored them. I just wanted to go home.
I asked Matt about it when he called later.
“Some of the girls at school said that Impeder can prevent the Super Cancer. Does it?” I could hear his roommate using the flight simulator in the background. I tried to crush the feeling of fear that Matt was training to fly a spaceship.
“No,” he said. “It’s just a ruse.”
“What’s a ruse?”
“A scam that stupid people believe. Listen,” he said, “you can’t believe everything people tell you, no matter who they are.” Matt’s voice was serious. “I don’t care if they’re the President of the United States. You can’t trust anyone.”
“What about Mom? I can trust Mom.”
“Well, ya. You can trust Mom.”
“And I can trust you.”
“Of course you can trust me.”
“So then you’re wrong.”
I could hear Matt sigh. “All I’m saying is that there are some people out there who only care about themselves. Take this Impeder. Some greedy company started this lie that the sun is causing the Super Cancer and now everyone’s buying up this lotion without really thinking about it. I mean, the sun’s been around forever and the animals and trees never got cancer like this before. So why would the sun all of a sudden be causing cancer when the sun is the same as it’s always been? And now this company is raking in millions because people are lazy and don’t want to think for themselves.”
I didn’t say anything but I smiled. He’d confirmed my suspicions that the Impeder girl in the locker room was a hare-brained twit.
I slept better than usual that night but I still slept with the stick firm in my right hand.
By the time I was a freshman in high school, the notion that the sun was causing the Super Cancer had taken off. Impeder was in everything: lotions, soaps, shampoos, contact lenses. It was manufactured in pill and liquid form. It was added into our already modified and artificial foods: cereal, fruit, vegetables, bread, milk, cheese, orange juice.
The only benefit I could find was that the tangerines tasted more real than real ones. Well, what I could remember of the real ones anyway.
Nobody was talking numbers- whether or not the amount of people developing the Super Cancer had dropped since Impeder had become a staple. I guess all that mattered was that people thought it was helping.
I was sitting in History class watching a janitor rake the-dirt-that-once-was-grass so that it laid out in a nice fan-shaped pattern when the teacher’s words caught my attention. He had been talking about the history of space exploration and I’d been pretending to be bored like the rest of the students but the subject matter was making my heart race and palms sweat.
“And that brings us to Teralf,” he said.
I shifted in my seat.
“The latest exoplanet to be deemed appropriate for life as we know it. The perfect planet, some say, which is why the United States established a settlement there about two years ago.
A handful of United States’ citizens call Teralf home. Just scientists now but in a hundred years or so, your grandchildren could be living there.”
I waited for him to say something about the aliens but the bell rang and everyone jumped out of their seats to rush to their next class. Someone shoved me out of the way and my book slid out of my hands and across the room.
The teacher picked it up.
“Stephanie,” he said. “I’d like to speak with you.”
He held my book between his hands. I wanted to dash to my next class but I couldn’t leave without it.
I shuffled to his desk.
“Your assignment on space exploration was quite fascinating.”
My cheeks warmed. He likes it.
“But perhaps more suited to a fiction assignment in English class. I’m not sure where you acquired this idea about aliens, Stephanie, but it’s rather absurd. You do know that there’s no evidence of any other type of life form on Teralf, let alone these orange extraterrestrials you call Teralfians, don’t you? ”
I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out.
“I realize,” he continued after a moment, “that you’ve been through some difficult times over the past few years with your grandmother’s… disappearance, shall we say, but this is a little alarming.” He set the book down.
I eyed it.
“What I’m trying to say, Stephanie, is that if you need to talk to someone…”
I grabbed the book and ran. I couldn’t stop and before I knew it, I was running down the hallway. Students looked up at me; some of them shouted after me, their voices echoing in the long, concrete hallway but I didn’t stop. I threw open the school doors and there it was: freedom.
I rushed after it.
The janitor dropped his rake and darted after me but he couldn’t keep up. His heavy footfalls stopped after the first half-mile and he was bent over gasping for air when I glanced back. The wind whipped cold air at me but I didn’t care.
I briefly wondered what Mom would do when I showed up at the house in the middle of the school day but the thought evaporated as the half-mile turned into a mile into another mile and soon I was running up Hades’ Hill not far from our house.
I reached the edge of our property and cut through our yard. The maple and apple trees that were blooming the day Grandma was taken were now black and withered. Some of them had toppled over. It was a desolate landscape.
“Mom! I’m home!” The book thudded when I dropped it on the kitchen table. “Mom!” I went room-to-room calling out for her. There was no answer.
She was gone.
I waited five hours before I made the decision to search the woods next to our property.
I took a flashlight, a knife, and my cell phone. For some reason, I also took some water and a couple of protein bars.
As an afterthought, I grabbed the stick.
The anticipation was the worst part. I stared at the lifeless foliage.
Most of the trees had collapsed, their trunks swallowed by black, cancerous moles; dead sticks and undergrowth could trip me up, entangle me.
My hands trembled. What if I fell onto one of those furry, malignant moles? I told myself it wasn’t possible but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would contract the cancer from it.
A cloud crossed the sun. It would be dark soon. I had to go. Now.
Branches reached up, snagged at my jeans as I moved into the woods.
I yelled for Mom.
My teeth chattered. My hands and feet were so cold that I couldn’t feel them. There was a loud noise, a howl, and then I was running, my feet pounding into the dirt and the smell of decay deep in my nose and mouth.
A few minutes later, I was back in the house, standing in the shower with my clothes on, the faucet turned all the way up. I was still shivering. And I was angry. I hadn’t been able to do it.
My sobs were loud.
I left Matt a message on his cell phone.
“Hey, Matt. It’s Steph. I haven’t seen Mom since this morning. I searched some of the woods but couldn’t find her and she’s not answering any of my calls. I was wondering if you’ve heard from her.”
I huddled in my favorite comforter, the green and blue one Grandma had made for me when I was five and had insisted that the one I had was for little girls because it was pink, and I tried hard to stop crying. I knew that something bad had happened. This wasn’t like Mom. She was responsible. She didn’t disappear for hours and not answer her cell phone. She didn’t abandon her kids.
When Matt called back in the morning, I was certain that Mom had been abducted by the aliens, too.
“I’m coming home,” he said.
“It’s ok. You have work to do.”
“I already booked a flight for two o’ clock. You don’t have to go through this by yourself, you know.”
He came with a woman and four other men. They scoured the grounds with some brand new and expensive-looking scientific gear.
“Who are these people?” I asked Matt. He was nineteen now but still growing. He looked taller every time I saw him.
“I’ve known most of them since I started the Science program.” He yelled out to one of them. “Make sure you guys check the woods.”
The man saluted him. “Will do, bro!”
“What are they doing here?”
“Looking for Mom. What do you think?”
“But shouldn’t we call the police?”
He studied me. “I want to check things out before we call the police. We’ve got lots of equipment they don’t have. We might be able to find something they can’t.”
I was about to ask him what he thought they’d find but he picked up a long, thin apparatus and walked off towards the woods. I didn’t really have to ask anyway. I knew they were looking for aliens.
I moved into Matt’s D.C. apartment a week later.
D.C. was more impersonal than Ohio. The people scuttled out of their homes only when needed and scurried by to avoid the sun’s malignant rays. I could run on the trails for hours and not even pass another person. I found that I liked it.
There was a mock Tofu pop stand just outside our apartment so I picked some up for Matt and I. The vendor looked me up and down. “Better cover them arms and legs up, girlie.”
Matt wasn’t home yet so I ate his Tofu pop.
My school books were sitting on the kitchen table but I brushed past them to the large picture window and pulled up the Sun Shields. Across the street, workers were building an underground network, a whole community where people would live, go to school, and work without ever having to step outside. It was called the Impeder Shelter. They were being built in every city in the world.
The blasting and hammering were so loud that I didn’t hear Matt until he was standing next to me.
“What’s going on?”
“That shelter’s a mistake.” He shook his head. “An expensive one. Did you know that some of the condos down there are selling for billions of dollars?”
I shook my head.
“A one-bedroom apartment is several hundred thousand. And people are buying them up like crazy.”
“I bet the CEO of Impeder is fat and happy,” I said.
“And all for nothing,” Matt continued, his voice rising. “They build houses in the ground and hibernate year-round to avoid the sun but where’s the proof that it causes the Super Cancer? Show me how all of this,” he gestured around the room and then outside toward the shelter, “is decreasing the rate of cancer. Show me!”
I stared. He was in a mood.
“What if it’s the aliens?” I hadn’t meant to say it out loud but it spurted out anyway.
“The cancer. What if the aliens are causing the Super Cancer?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have time for this, Steph.”
“But what if they’re doing it? What if they’re trying to kill us off because we colonized one of their planets?”
Matt let out a sigh. “We’ve already looked into that. We still haven’t found any substantial proof that aliens exist.”
“But you know they do. You saw them.”
He threw up his hands. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell anyone this but here’s the truth. The sun isn’t causing the cancer. It’s the soil. It’s something in the ground. We discovered it a few days ago but the government won’t listen. We told them the facts, showed them the truth but they want more proof.”
I felt my mouth drop open. “But if people are moving underground into the Impeder- ”
“-it’s a death sentence,” he finished.
The star actor on Impeder’s commercials was in D.C.
I stepped to the curb across from our apartment as his SUV rolled to a stop in front of me and the door opened. A man strained, rocked himself out of the driver’s seat, his fat face and pudgy hands soaked in sweat, and opened the passenger door.
The actor stepped out, saw me, smiled. His teeth were opals against dark skin. “Well, hi there kiddo.”
My hands clenched. “Hi.”
“Have you checked out your new Shelter? Your parents got you a place down there yet?” His voice radiated confidence. Happiness. Fakeness.
“They should. I heard it’s quite spectacular. Came to check it out for myself.”
I nodded. Turned away. But he kept talking to me.
“Got something special here for the kiddos.”
My teeth clenched. I wasn’t a kid. Not anymore, anyway.
A purple bottle slid out of his hand into mine.
“New flavor,” he said. “Made for the kiddos but the parents really like it because all of the research and development was done right here in D.C.”
People gathered around, nudging each other out of the way to get a bottle.
I was surprised that Matt hadn’t mentioned that Impeder was manufactured here in D.C. since he had such a dislike for it. I opened the bottle, smelled deeply. Grape.
The address on the back of the bottle was familiar. 121 Lockwood. My stomach flipped. Wasn’t that the address where Matt worked?
I took the metro. Next to me, a mother watched her two kids with her eyes half closed as one of them licked the other’s eyeballs. The kid turned to me, asked if I wanted a lick. I would’ve laughed if I’d been in the mood. Instead, I handed him the Impeder.
“Grape,” I said. “Edible, too.”
They argued over it. One hit the other. Their mother closed her eyes.
The building at 121 Lockwood was easy to find because it was imposing and emblazoned with the purple and green Impeder logo. People rushed by, their heads down, carrying briefcases.
“Need some help, miss?”
The security guard was young. He wasn’t tall but filled out his uniform nicely with lean muscle.
Sweat dripped down my sides. I shook my head. What was I doing here?
“Are you looking for your parents?”
“No. Just got a little turned around, I guess.” I shrugged my shoulders.
“You’re here for the tour then? They’re serving up taste-tests of the new flavor today. Come on. I’ll get you to the front desk.”
He took me through the security gate and inside the building where a long line of people waited for their ticket.
“Look,” he said. “I can get you in faster. You don’t have to wait in this line.”
I followed him down a flight of stairs and through a locked door labeled “Personnel Only.” My alarm bells didn’t start clanging until we went into a little office and he locked the door behind me. Before I could react, he pinned me on the desk with his hands holding me down.
“You yell and I’ll kill you,” he said. His Taser pressed against my neck.
“Don’t make me use this.”
I couldn’t think past the pulsing of blood in my ears.
He moved to unbutton his pants and I reacted instinctively, shoving him and kicking him in the groin. I was out of the office and running down the hall when I heard him slam the door and yell out after me.
The hall was austere, quiet. No one appeared, curious about the commotion.
My footfalls were loud on the linoleum and I could hear him behind me. He was fast.
But I was faster. I threw open a door and bolted up a set of steps. At the top, there was another door. I went through it.
On the other side was a large room. The orange of the aliens’ skin was shocking against the sterile white walls. They turned their heads to look at me in the doorway. There were hundreds of them.
I screamed. Then I passed out.
I woke to bright light and a pinching feeling in my arm. The aliens had me. They were experimenting.
I couldn’t see past the glare but garbled voices surrounded me, hemmed me in. I struggled to sit up and I was pushed back down.
One of them bent over me, said something. I punched at it. Missed.
It motioned to the others and they stepped away. It turned off the light. Peered down at me.
It was touching its head, pulling at it, until it became elongated like some kind of wretched Halloween mask, and shrieks erupted from my throat like vomit.
It ripped its head off. I looked up at the bloody stump that had been its head but it wasn’t bloody and it wasn’t a stump. It was Matt.
The second time I woke up we were barreling down the highway at break-neck speed. I was lying with the seat down in the passenger side.
“You’re fine,” Matt said. “Just passed out from the shock.” He held out a bottle of water and a candy bar. “Eat this. It’ll make you feel better.”
I shoved his hand away and sat up.
“Look, I know you’re mad and that’s okay. You have every right to be mad, but you don’t know the whole story. Once you know-”
“Where are we going?” I interrupted. “And why are you driving so fast?” My heart was racing but I didn’t want Matt to know. I glared at him. “Are you an alien? Have you been hiding it this whole time?”
Matt sighed. “One thing at a time, Steph.”
“Well you better start talking.”
“First off, we’re going to the airport.”
“But the airport’s that way.” I pointed east.
“We’re going to a different one.”
“Because they’re coming after us.”
I looked behind me. There was no one on the highway, in either direction.
“Who’s coming after us?”
“Those things you call aliens.”
My throat tightened. “You can’t be serious.”
He leaned forward, reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet.
I did. His picture stared back at me with the letters FBI inscribed at the top.
“You’re in the FBI?”
Matt nodded. “We were on a secret mission. Investigating Impeder. That’s why I was in there when you… fainted.” He glanced at me. “What were you doing in there anyway?”
“No way,” I said. “It’s your turn to answer questions. Why were you investigating Impeder?”
Matt looked in the rearview mirror, sped up. “You know how I told you that there’s something in the soil that’s causing the Super Cancer?”
“It looks like Impeder was able to isolate the source. Steph, they’ve been putting it in their products. All of them.”
“But why? That means they want people to get cancer.”
“Right. And what happens when everyone’s getting cancer and they have the only supposed preventative? They suddenly get really rich and powerful.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes; Matt tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and I stared out at the brownness of the terrain.
“Hey Matt,” I said.
“Does that mean those orange things aren’t really aliens?”
“No, they’re not aliens,” he replied. “Just nerds in biosuits.”
“So those orange things that took grandma and mom weren’t aliens?”
Sirens erupted behind us.
Matt swore. “Hold on, Steph.”
Police cars hounded us. I sunk down in my seat, covered my eyes. “Why are the police after us?“
“That’s not the police. That’s Impeder.” Matt slammed on the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard. The tires screeched as the rubber slid across the asphalt and then we were driving through the dirt, the car bouncing up and down on the rocks and dead stumps.
I grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”
“I almost missed the entrance to the airport,” he said. “They must’ve taken the sign down.”
There was no road, no indication that there was an airport anywhere in the vicinity.
“This can’t be the way. You’d better turn around or we’ll miss the flight.”
“I can’t turn around.”
He was right. Impeder’s men were right behind us.
Matt swung the car in front of a large building, low-slung, brown like the landscape.
“This is it,” he said. “Run inside!”
“You have to be kidding me. This can’t be it.”
“Go,” he yelled.
We ran toward the building. “What the hell is going on, Matt? This can’t be an airport. There aren’t even any planes.”
Matt glanced behind us so I looked too.
The cars following us were sliding to a stop. Some of the men were already jumping out of their cars, running after us.
“We know some pretty damning stuff and they’ll kill us for it. We have to go into hiding.”
There was yelling behind us. A warning shot.
I gasped. “For how long?” We were almost at the entrance to the hanger.
“Until Impeder’s brought down.”
A man flung open the door to the hangar. He was wearing some type of suit that reminded me of a race car driver. “Hurry!”
He pulled us toward a metallic-looking vessel in the hangar’s center, its doors flung open like wings. It almost sparkled in the fluorescent light.
There were two others inside. One of them was running a diagnostics check at the console and the other was pressing buttons to close the vessel’s doors.
They looked familiar and I remembered who they were, where I’d seen them.
It’d been the day mom had disappeared. They’d shown up with some fancy equipment to help us find her.
They must’ve been undercover with the FBI and forced to go into hiding, too, when I’d blown their cover.
I felt some guilt in ruining the investigation, these people’s lives.
There was shouting. Impeder’s men were inside the hangar. Shots rang off the vessel.
“Let’s get this thing moving,” Matt shouted.
The atmosphere felt tense. Everyone moved with a nervous edge.
An enormous gate slid open at one side of the hanger. I was buckled into a seat next to Matt when the countdown started.
Cheers erupted at liftoff.
“They can’t get us now.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. All of this- Matt being in the FBI and the investigation into Impeder- was shocking, but most frightening was the claim that there weren’t aliens at all. Instead, those orange things that had taken grandma and most likely mom were scientists from Impeder.
I could hear the others in the background. “Out of earth’s atmosphere,” one of them said.
And now I’m traveling in a spaceship to an unknown destination. I turned to Matt, “What did Impeder do with mom and grandma?”
Matt grabbed my hand. “We found some evidence that they took grandma for research. Impeder’s been contaminating products for decades and they wanted to know why she hadn’t developed the cancer like everyone else. How had she survived?”
“Is she still alive?”
Matt shook his head. His eyes were glassy.
I didn’t know what I was feeling- some anger, some sadness, but mostly nothing. I had long ago known that something bad had happened to grandma.
“What about mom?”
“They didn’t take mom.” Tears slipped down Matt’s cheeks. “She’s alive, Steph. You’ll see her. We’re going to see her.”
I thought I heard him speaking; I thought his lips were moving, but I wasn’t sure what he was saying. Then his voice was there, reassuring.
“She’s okay, Steph. She figured it out before us, before the FBI did. She knew about the soil, the abduction. She’s the one that contacted the FBI and they forced her into hiding for her safety, and for yours.
“You have to understand,” he continued. “They wouldn’t let her tell you.”
There was anticipation then, and relief. The anger was gone.
“Where is she? Where are we going?”
Matt’s mouth slid into a half-smile. “Teralf.”
“Teralf? You’re joking right? I felt like I’d just been hit in the stomach by a fast pitch. Matt unbuckled his seat belt and walked away but he was back in a minute.
“Look on the bright side,” he said. “Now you know that Teralfians don’t exist.”
“Just because there aren’t aliens on earth doesn’t mean that there aren’t aliens on Teralf.”
Matt held something out to me. “There’s no proof of aliens, Steph, but I got you a new stick, anyway. I know yours broke during the move.”
It was long and healthy. I wondered where he’d found one that wasn’t dead with cancer.
I took the stick. It felt right in my hands.
“I sure hope it works,” I said. “That last one was a dud.”
Lauren B. Fawcett has a Master of Science degree in Education. A rather indecisive person with varied interests, she enjoys writing in multiple genres, including Fantasy, Western, Historical, and Science Fiction. Previous works have appeared in The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals, The Big Adios, and Mused-The Bella Online Literary Journal. She resides in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, Patrick, and a cat with ninja-like moves. Check out her website at www.theskinnyminny.com